Lover: Taylor Swift’s Return to Optimism — A Review

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Photo: TAS RIGHTS MANAGEMENT

It’s nigh-impossible in the 2010s to escape the pop music dominance of Taylor Swift. There’s little about the pop icon that hasn’t been scrutinized and carefully examined in pop culture articles in the past decade. Swift has been cast in various roles in the media, be it a doe-eye ingenue or a manipulative dramatic diva. However, Swift’s lyrical prowess has never been contested and has remained the cornerstone of her superstardom. Swift’s previous album Reputation saw Swift attempt to repair her damaged media presence by playing into the villain role image-wise. Though the album was chock-full of pop bangers, it didn’t perform as successfully as prior releases and largely felt like a step down artistically, as Swift seemed to sacrifice lyricism for the sake of a trendier pop sound. Nevertheless, Reputation performed well enough that it likely did repair said image and saw Swift regain enough momentum to launch her current era, Lover. Swift has already had her own controversies this era — losing control of her masters, embracing her political identity — that will largely shape the media’s narrative around her latest album. With that being said, this is an examination of the album itself and what it means for Swift’s artistic legacy.

Swift opens Lover with the sprightly “I Forgot That You Existed”, a kiss-off that functions more as Taylor’s shrug towards someone who crossed her in the past. It could work as final ta-ta to any of the rumored subjects of her material in the past but ultimately, works well as a bridge from Reputation to Lover, as the buoyancy here signals a new era that isn’t bogged down by drama. “Cruel Summer” is an immediately anthemic ode to a blossoming romance, though one shrouded in secrecy. Frequent collaborator Antonoff’s adds a summery touch to his usual 80s-inflected production which lends a nostalgic touch that packs a punch when coupled up with Swift’s detailed lyricism. Title-track “Lover” is a devotional that allows Swift to utilize her widely known flair for writing affecting and realistic depictions of her relationships and emotions, and sets it to a more stripped-back production that looks to her country roots for a timeless sound, destined to score weddings and slow-dances for years to come. Swift shifts gears on the unabashedly feminist “The Man”, where she pulls the many perceptions built of her over her career and questions how they would be reconfigured if she were a man. Set to Joel Little’s electropop-focused production, it’s a track that works well with Swift’s more politically forward image and makes its point clear without ever feeling like a lecture. “The Archer” hearkens back to Swift’s 1989 material with a similarly 80s synthpop production which works on a self-referential level, as Swift uses the track to reflect on her own insecurities and her past, pondering how these might affect her current relationship.

Swift explores the beginnings of a crush with “I Think He Knows”, where Antonoff matches her butterflies with his own fluttering production, mimicking the “skipping heartbeat” Swift gushes about in the chorus. Joel Little aids Swift in deftly translating Lana Del Rey’s American obsession to Swift’s “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince”, where Swift subtly nods to her own disillusionment with the current state of America as she casts her romance against a backdrop of proms and sports teams. Swift’s cheerleader chants on the bridge and the ominous mood of the track bolster the song’s strong narrative identity and make it one of the album’s best moments. “Paper Rings” sees Swift proclaim her willingness to forego material things to fully immerse herself in her relationship, played over a chipper rock-tinged beat that allows Swift to be charming and sentimental without being too saccharine. Swift resurfaces her talent for peppering the narratives in her songwriting with minutiae on “Cornelia Street”, namechecking the street in New York City she once resided on. The wistful mix of synths and piano provide Swift with the vulnerable but assured backing for Swift to express her deep affection for her significant other, vowing to never walk the aforementioned street again if they should ever break up. The swirling piano on “Death by A Thousand Cuts” delineates Swift’s own spiral following a break-up, which she likens to “a thousand cuts”. Swift illustrates her deteriorating mental frame following the break-up mentioned in the track, as she checks off a list of getting drunk, dancing in haunted clubs and even talking to traffic lights.

Swift shamelessly turns to British vernacular to convey her complete adoration of her current English boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. Over a slightly-trap affected beat, Swift admits that as much as she loves American culture, her affection for Alwyn has extended her fascination to British culture as a whole. She enlists Dixie Chicks to assist her with “Soon You’ll Get Better”, where she returns to her country roots to confront her feelings over her mother’s battles with cancer. At one point during the track, Swift even sighs as she convinces herself and attempts to convince her mother that she will get better because she “has to”, for a highly emotive moment powered by Swift’s sheer vulnerability over the subject matter. Having touched on religion briefly in the former track, Swift uses religion as a metaphor on “False God”, where Swift adds a bit of soul as she upholds her romance as if it were something divine. Here, Swift is aware that viewing her relationship as a religion in and of itself may not be completely healthy, but hopes she can get away with it nevertheless. “You Need to Calm Down” sees Swift condescendingly dismissive of the criticism she has faced over her career and extending said dismissiveness towards homophobia, over a pulsating beat. Lyrically, the song feels dissonant as it attempts to tackle two different issues but Swift’s campy demeanor stops the track from complete derailment.

Swift is rarely as contrite in her material as she is on “Afterglow”, as she takes complete responsibility for her relationship’s deterioration and attempts to salvage it on her best approximation of the typical torch song. Frank Dukes and Louis Bell assist Swift with a churning and steady synthpop beat that remains light enough to complement Swift’s airy but confident vocals. On “Me!”, the album’s lead single, Swift plays it safe on the fluffy track that hopes to encourage others to embrace their individuality, and pairs up with Brendon Urie who sounds right in his wheelhouse on the track. The album version wisely cuts the “Hey kids! Spelling is fun!” proclamation before the bridge but ultimately, the song feels built for mass-market appeal and falls short of the stronger material surrounding it. On a completely different change of pace for Swift, “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” implements steel-pan to give her a mild tropical sound as she celebrated the closeness between two schoolyard friends, that possibly results in a romantic relationship. Swift closes the album with the bright and hopeful “Daylight” where Swift expresses a desire to embrace the happiness her current relationship has brought, celebrating how it has brought her out of the turmoil of past relationships and dramas. It serves almost as a bow that wraps the album into a complete package, complementing the brightness and optimism that permeates the album, especially in sharp contrast to prior record Reputation.

Lover sees Swift return to lyrical highs she hasn’t experienced since Red, as Swift manages to create a record that allows her to marry her pop sensibilities with her skill at weaving detailed and rich narratives in songwriting. Swift also sounds far less like she is aiming to please than on prior records, and sounds assured as if she were making the kind of music she wants to make. Lover is perhaps one of Swift’s most mature releases to date, and allows Swift to craft one of her most interesting and emotional pop albums. Taylor Swift sounds more secure in herself than she ever has before. If Swift continues to be one of pop music’s pre-eminent figures, and it does seem likely, then it stands to reason that pop music may be in good hands after all.

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